Earthquakes can strike without warning, causing major property damage and loss of life. Seismic sensors that could alert those in the area of a pending earthquake do exist, but they are costly; typically, applications are limited to main pieces of infrastructure only. But a team of researchers at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in British Columbia, Canada, is working on tiny sensors that function as ultra-sensitive accelerometers and can capture sensitive seismic activity – potentially enough to give a pre-emptive heads-up that would allow some of an earthquake’s potential destruction to be averted.
"When an earthquake happens, its sound, in the form of seismic pressure waves, travels faster than the destructive land motions," explained Behraad Bahreyni, principal investigator for the Intelligent Sensing Laboratory at SFU's Surrey campus. “The sensitivity of these devices is such that they can pick up the pressure waves produced by an earthquake before it strikes. This could impact the outcome of such a disaster."
The development of the sensors, interestingly enough, started from a different goal: making compact and cost-efficient underwater sonar systems designed to detect underwater threats, in an effort to improve defense and security. Bahreyni and his team collaborated with Halifax-based Ultra Electronics Maritimes Systems, which provided funding for that research.
Bahreyni soon realized that the high-performance, micro-machined accelerometers being tested and developed in his lab could have additional applications. These include detecting low-frequency seismic pressure signals from earthquakes, as well as detecting high-frequency vibration patterns along pipelines caused by gas leaks.
The research has led to a start-up company, axSense Technologies. According to the company, the accelerometers - which measure less than a single square centimeter - have a noise level 20 times better than what is currently available and a bandwidth that is four times better. Bahreyni is confident that the accelerometers, which he expects to bring to market over the next few years, give the company the potential to be a market leader.